Like Begets Like

20 March 2021

When a human man and a human woman make a baby, what kind of baby do they make?

A human baby.

Frogs make more frogs, fish make more fish, and dragonflies make more dragonflies. Like begets like; you reproduce what you are.

The same is true in education. When I was learning to be a school bus driver, all my instructors were school bus drivers. When I went to massage therapy school, all my teachers without exception were massage therapists.

Makes sense, right?

So if you want to be a professor, it makes all the sense in the world to spend years of your life with professors. How else would you learn to be one? It takes a group of academics to make an academic; how else would you get one?

But if you want to be a practitioner, you need to spend time with practitioners. Nothing is sillier than thinking you can spend three to four years in classrooms with professional academics and emerge a fully-formed ministry practitioner. In what other context would you accept such a ludicrous idea?


No Jobs; Plenty of Work

2 March 2021

When the farmers settled the Great Plains, they were often farming a homestead many miles from the nearest town. Establishing a farm like that, there is never a shortage of work to be done. With winter coming fast, you don’t have a lot of time to build, so you probably throw up the smallest shed you can get away with and spend the first winter sharing it with the animals. Speaking of animals: they need daily care, and there’s new ground to break, weeds to pull from the garden, equipment to fix, and on and on — an endless amount of work.

Work that nobody pays you for.

If you do your work hard, quickly, and well, you will survive the winter so you can expand it all next spring. If you’re industrious and the harvests are decent, by the time a few cycles have gone by, you’ll have a house, established fields and garden plots, a barn for the animals, and so on — a thriving homestead. Maybe you’ll have a little spare time and garden space to raise tobacco or some such for a cash crop. Or set up a still to turn your leftover grain into whiskey you can sell.

But you still won’t have a job. Nobody pays you to work the homestead. You have the fruits of your labors. Either that’s enough, or it’s not.

That’s the kind of ministry to which many of us are called. The harvest is plentiful, but nobody’s gonna hire you to bring it in. Either you will do it anyway because Jesus said you should, or you won’t.

There may be times you’re able to make a paycheck doing ministry work, or people give you gifts that enable you to devote more time and attention to the work. There’s nothing wrong with that; Paul did it at times and so have I. But Paul’s decisions about where to minister don’t seem to have ever been determined — or even influenced — by the availability of paying ministry gigs. He cheerfully went places where he had to support himself to do the work, and so have I.

And so should you.


Why Character Matters

2 February 2021

I have seen more than one ministry implode. Beyond the obvious scandalous causes (pastor sleeps with counselee, treasurer runs off with the money), there are some less-discussed, but very common, patterns.

I’ve seen relational problems build up over time: petty power plays, minor wrongs never confessed, refusal to forgive, personal jealousies, frustrated ambitions, etc. Then one day, people begin seeking occasions for accusation and conflict rather than reconciliation. Out of nowhere, there’s a long string of “offenses” and “concerns,” often never raised before, that preclude discussion and demand immediate action. (Either the “offended” party leaves in a huff, or arranges the ouster of the “offender.” Either way, it doesn’t generally end well.)

I have made the mistake of recruiting someone for his evident skills, and not looking closely enough into the character underneath. Those skills that I thought were so valuable, such a good complement to my areas of weakness, were turned against me and people I cared about, to devastating effect.

From a distance, you can’t necessarily tell these things are happening. A lot of these cases get disguised as a doctrinal disagreement, a difference in philosophy of ministry, or just papered over with a simple “we feel the Lord is leading us in a different direction.” Everybody buys it, partly because they respect their leaders, and partly because it would be too uncomfortable to call BS on the easy explanation and find out what actually happened. But I’ve been in the ministry world my whole life, and I’ve had ringside seats for a bunch of these messes.

Very often, at the root of it all is a simple lack of character, a preference for taking the easy way out rather than doing the hard work of keeping short accounts, a desire to hide rather than live in the revealing light of openness to God and each other. Anyone who’s been in ministry for a while has had similar experiences.

Godly character–a cultivated habit of openness, and willingness to do the hard thing rather than take the easy way out–is the foundation for everything else. Skills and gifting are important, but without the character to support them, they’re a house built on the sand. In ministry, we’re in the trouble business; there’s always another storm around the corner.

That kind of character is impossible without the Spirit. It’s easy enough to be loving and inviting if you never say hard things, and it’s easy enough to say hard things if you’re not loving and inviting. To do both, and expose your own flaws in the process–that takes the Spirit of God, drawing you into the life-sharing dance of the Trinity. Which, in the process, brings you into step with all your other brothers and sisters who are also in the dance.

There is no crucible for building those habits like the one Jesus used: immersion in ministry, bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom everywhere you go…and debriefing along the way. We should do more of it.


40,000 Reasons to Reconsider Seminary

12 January 2021

So let’s talk about seminary. You ship yourself off for two to four years of preparation, and come out the end ready to go, a newly-minted ministry professional. What’s not to love, right?

Well…

You’re attending an Institution of Higher Learning. There are Impressive Buildings, Distinguished Faculty Members, and Excellent Administrators (more layers of them every year!). There’s a library measured in acres (which will be named the Big Donor Resource Center; “library” is entirely too prosaic). It’s a wonderful place to read and study, it really is. (I get it; I love the smell of books too!) But you know who pays for all that academic and architectural bling? You do. Sure, generous donors cover some of it–note the bronze nameplates everywhere–but you cover a significant portion.

So what does that look like? As I write this, I’m looking at a fairly typical degree plan from Major Seminary (I won’t mention which one). It’s a three-year M.Div. requiring 78 credit hours, at about $580/hour, for a total of $45,240. (Another one I’m looking at totals just under $60K, so you’re getting off cheap with that first one. Count your blessings.) Unless you’re pretty rich, you can’t afford that, so you’re going the student loan route. If you borrow the whole amount, you’ll come out saddled with about $500 a month in loan payments, for 10 years–which would be absolutely crippling. But that’s silly. Of course you’re going to work while you’re in school; let’s say that you can afford to pay a little under half the school bill as you go, so you only need to borrow $25,000. (By the way, that means you’re paying over $550/month during your 3 years of school; good luck!) After you get out, your monthly loan payment will be roughly $275. A little more doable.

You graduate and take an entry-level job in a ministry field, paying, what? $30,000, if you’re lucky? That’s $2500 a month. More than a tenth of your meager income is going to your student loan. And then the kids come….

But it gets worse, because that’s assuming you land a full-time job. Let’s be honest, those jobs aren’t exactly growing on trees. More and more of us are bivocational, because our ministries just can’t afford to fund full-time workers. At the last church I worked for, every person on the pastoral staff was bivocational; we all had one or more side gigs that we needed, just to make ends meet. The few full-time jobs that are available usually require 3-5 years of experience. So probably you don’t land one of those right away.

How are you planning to gain experience? Well, you’ll take a youth or associate pastor gig that pays $600 or maybe $1000 a month for what they’ll say is 10-15 hours a week (actually 20+), and then you’ll do something else on the side. Barista, bus driver, parking valet, waiter–the kind of jobs that have flexible hours so you can do the ministry work. You’ll be bouncing back and forth between your “side gig” — which actually pays most of your expenses–and your ministry job, struggling to get by, and paying an extra $275 a month for your student loans…for 10 years.

Sounds fun, yeah?

I thought not. There is another way, an older way. A way closer to what Jesus did, a way that the Church used for centuries, until very recently. It’s better than grad school–and coincidentally, it doesn’t leave you in crippling debt. What if we tried that?


Why Prepare When You Could Practice?

13 November 2020

When Jesus called Matthew, He didn’t put him in a classroom. He took him on a three-year adventure. They cast out demons, healed the sick, baptized converts, preached the Kingdom of God. They did the work together, and along the way, Matthew absorbed Jesus’ teaching so well that he eventually wrote a book about it—the Gospel According to Matthew. Matthew organized his gospel around big teaching sections, a series of lectures Jesus gave, you might say: the Sermon on the Mount, the sending of the Twelve, the Kingdom Parables, and so on. But those lectures are interspersed throughout a historical narrative that covers Jesus’ ministry. It’s not that Jesus didn’t give lectures. It’s that Jesus gave them in a context of ministry. He didn’t spend a year preparing the disciples for the work; He took them with Him into the work right away, and trained them as they went.

In the modern church, we have succumbed to an ethic of over-preparation. We’ll yank you out of your context for three years of schooling–during which we’ll keep you entirely too busy reading fat books to really try applying much of what you’re learning–and only then turn you loose to really do it. By then, you’re on your own. If you’re lucky, you have some good people to debrief with, but sometimes you won’t. And all too often, your first few years of ministry will be filled with “Welp, they didn’t teach me that in seminary!”

What were they teaching you? Wasn’t the whole point to prepare you for the work?

Jesus had a better way. His way was to practice, right out the gate. If you were at your job, minding your own business, and Jesus called you: “Hey, you! Come follow Me!”–you didn’t go into a classroom to prepare. You went with Jesus to practice ministry with Him. You would preach, pray, heal the sick, cast out demons, go to a wedding, do whatever He was doing that day. You were in it all the way, right away. And it worked! The people Jesus trained that way turned the world upside down.

So what about you? Do you want to go prepare, or do you want to practice?